Cooking, the act of using heat to prepare food for consumption. Cooking is as old as civilization itself, and observers have perceived it as both an art and a science. Its history sheds light on the very origins of human settlement, and its variety and traditions reflect unique social, cultural, and environmental influences. The following article traces the evolution of cooking to the advent of national cuisines. See also cuisine; grande cuisine; nouvelle cuisine; molecular gastronomy; culture sections of assorted country articles.
Origins: from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists
The precise origins of cooking are unknown, but, at some point in the distant past, early humans conquered fire and started using it to prepare food. Researchers have found what appear to be the remains of campfires made 1.5 million years ago by Homo erectus, one of the early human species. In fact, anthropologists such as Richard Wrangham have argued that cooking played an essential role in human evolution. Cooking foods makes them more digestible, so the calories and some of the nutrients in them are easier to absorb. Thus, cooking allowed early humans to tap a wider variety of food sources and gain more nutrition from them.
Archaeological evidence of food preparation, backed up by knowledge of how modern-day hunter-gatherers prepare their food, suggests that the first cooks did little to their food in the way of preparation or technique. The flesh of animals was either roasted over a fire or boiled in water to make it tender, fruit was gathered and peeled, and nuts were shelled. Necessity, rather than flavour, usually dictated how hunter-gatherers of the past prepared their food. Some foods had to be prepared carefully to remove toxins. Native American tribes in California, for example, developed a procedure to make acorns edible by removing their bitter tannic acid. Farther south, native peoples in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela learned to remove the cyanide from cassava (also called manioc), a starchy root used to make tapioca and a staple crop across the tropics.
Hunter-gatherers processed foods to preserve them. Because some hunter-gatherer societies faced uncertain food supplies, particularly in winter, they developed techniques such as smoking and drying to make foods last longer. They also created preparations such as pemmican (a mixture of meat, fat, and sometimes fruit) to preserve foods. Alcohol required elaborate preparation as well, and societies around the world perfected means to ferment fruit or grain into alcohol.
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Agriculture was invented independently at different places and times around the world, as people learned to domesticate local plants and animals and began to live a settled life. That advance was a major turning point in human history, as farming fed people more reliably than hunting wild game and gathering wild plants, though farming was hardly easy or without risk in its early days. It also had a major impact on the development of cooking.
Crop failures, which were frequent, meant famine and death, and overreliance on one or a handful of crops resulted in malnutrition when those crops lacked the necessary vitamins or nutrients. The archaeological record reveals that starvation and vitamin deficiency were among the most-prevalent health issues for early societies. Gradually, however, agricultural societies improved their farming skills, increased their productivity, and decreased the risk of famine. Farming became more productive than hunting and gathering.
Yet agriculture made diets boring. Whereas hunter-gatherers relied on a wide variety of plants and animals, which changed with the seasons, farmers were more restricted in the crops they could plant and thus routinely ate the same foods. That motivated people to come up with ways to make their diets more interesting and palatable, giving rise to a new reason for cooking: improving the taste and variety of food. Because agriculture freed at least some of society from the task of providing food, people began to spend time doing other things, culinary experimentation included.
The professionalization of cooking
In most traditional societies, the task of daily food preparation fell primarily to women—though both men and women were heavily involved in food procurement. Civilization allowed more people to specialize in other occupations, and that trend eventually produced a class of professional chefs, whose main job was cooking for others. Tomb paintings, sculptures, and archaeological remains from more than 5,000 years ago clearly show that ancient Egypt already had many different food-related jobs, including butchery, baking, brewing, and winemaking. Beer brewing may have been initiated much earlier by the production of cereal crops, possibly 10,000 years ago. All of those professions had their own shops and facilities, often with multiple employees working in well-organized kitchens.
Culinary professionals generally cooked quite differently from the women who were cooking only for their families. Baking leavened bread, for example, was largely a professional activity, because ovens were expensive to own and operate. Much fuel was necessary to heat the earth, clay, or brick interior of an oven, and, once the right temperature was reached, maximum efficiency could be achieved only if many loaves were baked. Most people bought or bartered for their bread.
Flatbreads, by contrast, could be cooked simply in a pan or even on a rock. Cultures all over the world invented various forms of flatbread—from the tortilla in Mexico to the chapati in India to lefse in Norway. Because flatbreads did not require an oven or any elaborate preparation, they were typically made at home as part of peasant cuisine.
The professionalization of baking, brewing, and winemaking occurred for three reasons: capital equipment was expensive; increasingly complicated food products required skill and expertise to prepare; and there was a growing number of affluent customers. Chefs and culinary artisans were employed both for their practical uses and as status symbols, and people willing to pay more for a better meal created a ready market for new recipes and techniques.